The Accidental Art Director
[Originally published in Print magazine, May 1, 1998]
You get into the elevator and press PENTHOUSE, and the elevator takes you to a place where everything is cool. You are—imagine—a budding art director just out of your teens who has won the next best thing to a date with Jewel: an internship at Details, the magazine for style-conscious young guys like you.
The offices of the magazine are on Broadway near Bleecker. The rest of the Conde Nast empire is in Midtown. Up there the guys wear ties and the women carry little clutch handbags. But the Details crew gets to work “off campus.” Extremely cool.
The design director’s office is full of visual finery. On the walls are several dozen vintage record sleeves for Blue Note and Impulse jazz albums. There are hand-lettered posters for old James Bond movies and a Ward Sutton poster for a Sonic Youth concert in Seattle. Near the door is an illustration of a young Jesse Jackson, outrageously Afro’d, for a Time cover story about “Black America 1970.”
Then the guy whose couch you’re sitting on comes in. You were expecting a hipster with a pencil mustache wearing a four-button suit and shoes as shiny as the half-inch of LP between the label and the grooves. But Robert Newman is a very big guy with a shaved head dressed in black mufti from head to toe. Why, he looks exactly like Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil! He offers you a glass of water and you begin life in the real world.
Like that Australian band and its singer, Robert Newman has always tried to combine art and politics in his work. But he has also tried to wow the kids, too, through sheer attitude. Newman was a founder, and later the editor, of the legendary Seattle rock-and-politics monthly The Rocket, known for aggressive spreads by a loose aggregation of designers and illustrators. Many of them now ply their trade in New York, with Newman acting as their ringleader and expense-account paterfamilias. In New York himself since 1986, Newman has been an art director at a half-dozen magazines, some more than once: The Village Voice, Guitar World, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, and New York. Newspaper, trade magazine, newsmagazine, culture magazine, city magazine: it’s as though he is competing in the magazine pentathlon, vying for the gold in versatility.
Like The Rocket when he was editing it, Newman doesn’t have one recognizable signature style. Rather, he fosters the work of a group of designers and art directors who are loyal to him. “I think of myself as a sort of coach,” Newman says. “I work with designers and art directors with amazing raw talent, people who can do things far better than I could.”
“Newman is just the most nurturing art director you’ve ever met,” says Jesse Reyes, now a senior designer at Penguin USA, who freelances often for Newman. “He can steer you in the right direction without overpowering you.” Seattle designer Art Chantry concurs: “So many people have careers because of Bob. He’s a good designer, but he also has the biggest Rolodex in town.”
At Details—where he has been design director since last September—Newman has tried to bring in a “cool jazz” look, influenced especially by the work of Reid Miles, the designer of most of the record covers mounted on his office wall. Those sleeves defined music as a soundtrack to a visual style and a way of life; Details aspires to do the same. “That look helped us to crystallize the idea of the voice of the magazine,” Newman says, “which is how the process is supposed to work.”
In 1990, a downtown fashion and style magazine called Details was acquired by Conde Nast and retooled as a magazine for young men, the readers abandoned by Rolling Stone and raised on cable television and music videos. In its first decade, Details has had seven art directors, by Newman’s count, among them the late B.W. Honeycutt and Marcus Kierzsten, who plotted each issue from scratch, using lots of custom typefaces.
Newman arrived with the current editor, Michael Caruso, and immediately decided to redesign it. “It was hard to tell where you were in the magazine,” he says. “Some sections and features weren’t even in the same place every month. Michael wanted it to have a more organized look, a more disciplined architecture. And he wanted to raise the perceived age of readers to the mid-twenties. It was being read by 20-year-olds, and a lot of the design looked like skateboard graphics.”
Caruso told Newman he was after a more classic look. “So I took out some of Reid Miles’s Blue Note covers and said, let’s use these as a point of departure.” With Rocket alumnus Mark Michaelson, then a freelancer and now art director of New York magazine, Newman adapted the Blue Note look for the sections and features of the magazine, all the while trying to close the issue at hand. Now, the cool-jazz influence is apparent mainly in the type and the graphics. Type is stacked or stretched horizontally. Captions and pull quotes are laid out over “scissorcut” shapes or whizbang pop motifs. Material is organized with broad bands and arrows. Black-and-white photos are tinted, retro-style, and cropped eccentrically.
“We use Photoshop, but tell the designers that it has to look as though it was done by hand,” Newman says. “This is one of the differences, working with young designers at Details. The people I came up with think first of how to do something by hand. The people coming up today don’t know how to do it by hand.”
For all that, Details strikes the reader’s eye as hot rather than cool. It has the energy of its target reader, a man in his early twenties who is still experimenting with ways to ingest caffeine. One opening spread, for an article on the ska band the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, has a great deal happening in it: section header, head, deck, two-tone photograph (a visual pun on the “two-tone” ska fashion), and the band’s name, set vertically. “To a certain extent Details is a rock and roll magazine,” Newman says. “It can’t be too cool. It has to look like rock and roll. It can’t be old men in suits looking sophisticated.”
The energy is especially strong in the illustrations, some of them by Newman’s New York favorites (Scott Menchin, J.D. King, Stephen Kroninger, Gary Panter) and other people he has worked with since his Seattle days (Mark Zingarelli, Michael Dougan). Their hot handwork plays off the cool typography. Newman also emphasizes how closely he collaborates with the designers, such as John Giordani and Alden Wallace.
Newman has defined his work at Details against the work he did in his previous jobs, save one—as design director of Entertainment Weekly. “Our editor said, ‘I don’t want it to look like EW.’”
As Newman sees it, art directors and editors around the city are obsessed with EW, not because it came up with a new look, but because it took the Spy magazine look nationwide, spreading the smart, relentless layouts of that ’80s cult magazine to millions of young Americans. “What EW did was take attitude and mainstream it editorially and graphically. Spy started a lot of it, but EW mainstreamed it. By now, more people have picked it up from EW.”
That magazine’s visual sophistication was, and is, highly rationalized, he says. The editors rely on reader surveys that report whether people read a particular feature, so they favored attention-getting graphics. Because the magazine is viewed as a print counterpart to the visual stimulation of television, Newman says, “for the reader, it was graphic channel surfing. So if you had a space, you filled it.”
Finally, he says, the huge budgets at Time Inc. led to an almost competitive zeal about the available technology. “You’d say, ‘how many computer programs can I use to execute this design? How can I destroy the type?’” For a fall movie preview, Newman and his crew got the idea of using a movie marquee—complete with blocky letters. The job required so much memory that a bigger computer had to be brought in from People.
For a feature on Jennifer Aniston, the star of Friends, the art director, Michael Picon, fashioned a hairspray can that carried the headline. Newman fondly points out the visual details that contributed to the 3-D effect—and to the EW style generally: shadows, cutout letters, visuals extending over the border.
Other EW articles involved more classical design solutions. Features on the musician Beck and on Friends rely almost completely on illustrations to make a visual statement. And because the photo department works independently of the art department, often Newman would have to make do with odd photographs. “We were given these pictures of TV stars in boxes to work with, and we thought, ‘What are we going to do?’ So we made the box part of the overall design.”
Newman still describes the magazine with great passion, as though the design was a political act, the shrink-wrapping of a populist visual ideology. “We always thought about EW reversing two of the basic assumptions that prevailed at Time Inc.: that the masses aren’t interested in design, and that the design isn’t supposed to be noticed. EW was meant to say, people are more sophisticated than you think.”
Newman never intended to be an art director. A native of Buffalo, New York, he went to the College of Wooster in Ohio, graduating with a degree in history. Although he did art and designing, his passion at the time was for politics—“I did a lot of political posters,” he says.
After college, Newman worked as a political organizer in Ohio and then in Washington, DC. In the capital, he began working for a print shop, the Anaconda Press. “I went in to make a flier for a city council election, and the guy who ran the place asked me, ‘Hey, do you want to come work here?’” The man taught him stripping, pre-press, platemaking, and developing, and eventually Newman stopped working in politics. But not really. Having moved to Seattle in 1977, Newman got a job as the art director of The Seattle Sun, an alternative newspaper. “It looked sort of ragged,” he says sheepishly. “Every six months I’d have a new brainstorm and we’d redesign.” Like progressive journalists around the country at the time, Newman envisioned his paper as a local equivalent of The Village Voice, a left-wing New York tabloid that combined culture, politics, and journalism, with a design and layout steeped in the agitprop tradition. A similar attitude informed Square Studio, which Newman established in Seattle in the late ’70s. “We did magazines, posters, political campaigns, that sort of thing.”
By 1979, the “we” had come to include designers such as Michaelson and Helene Silverman (now at Hello studio in New York). With an abundance of talent, lots of ideas, a receptive readership—and, Newman admits, nothing much better to do—they founded The Rocket, a free monthly alternative newspaper. “There was a whole scene of graphic designers, and because Seattle is small, there wasn’t that much work. So they came to work for us, and the whole paper had a really graphic feel.”
The Rocket drew notice for its confrontational design, created by a huge cast of art directors. That’s because after two years Newman, with his history degree and his background in political organizing, had become the editor of the paper. The designers included Silverman, Jesse Reyes, Kate Thompson, Art Chantry, and Norman Hathaway. The illustrators included Matt Groening and Lynda Barry, whose year-end covers epitomized the magazine’s not-so-pretty style.
Exactly what made The Rocket look distinctive, at a time when “alternative” was still a glimmer in Kurt Cobain’s eye? “We did have a common esthetic. It was very bold. It could be retro. There were lots of tabloid influences. I always liked to think of it as Reid Miles meets The National Enquirer.”
Reyes describes the paper then as unapologetically eclectic. “You’d have a different look on every spread. One would be a cool jazz look. Then you’d turn the page and find a fuck-the-world punk, anarchy layout.” The office procedure was fairly anarchic as well. Newman worked the way he says he still works today, giving the designers a lot of room. “At The Rocket, I learned how to collaborate with many kinds of art directors. I’d send over a story and they’d send it back three days later, totally done.” In one instance, Newman, on deadline, had to send Art Chantry the specs for an article, because the piece itself hadn’t yet come in. Chantry went ahead and designed it, even thought up a headline. “Then the story came in really long. Art shrank it down to six-point on the Xerox machine and we just ran it,” Newman recalls. “It was the art director’s ultimate revenge. ‘So the writer wants to file late? Well, I’m not going to take apart my design! We’ll just make it fit!’”
When Newman left Seattle for New York in 1986, he still saw himself as an editor rather than an art director. The city changed his mind for him. “I found that it was easier to get a job as an art director than as an editor,” he says. “And it was easier to move up faster, too. As an editor, I never would have gotten my own magazine until I’d worked for ten years.”
His first job was as an associate art director at The Voice, with design director Michael Grossman—the first of three tours of duty at the paper. He left The Voice two years later and went to Guitar World magazine, which paid what seemed like a lot of money at the time. Newman was the art director, and he thought of the job as a step up. He was wrong. “I was dying to make big statements, but designers were treated as second-class citizens there. We had no power, no control.” Newsweek was no better. “The place was run by old newspaper people, and they weren’t interested in anything visual,” Newman says, shaking his head in disbelief. “They didn’t get that it wasn’t 1965 anymore.”
After a quick return trip to The Voice, in 1990 he trailed Grossman to Entertainment Weekly, where Newman became a senior art director—the number three designer at what was, at the time, the new start-up magazine of Time Inc., the first since People. His instinct to combine politics and graphics had never subsided, though. A year later, he got the job that had brought him to New York in the first place: design director of The Voice, then being edited by Jonathan Z. Larson, who in the ’70s had edited the venerated progressive magazine New Times. By then, Newman had a strong idea for the newspaper—the idea he’d had ever since he first started reading The Voice in Ohio and Seattle. “I’d always wanted to fuse art and politics and journalism, which we did at The Rocket. Now I wanted to do it in the context of a tabloid. New York is a tabloid city. I loved the idea of doing a left-wing New York Post and going head-to-head graphically with the tabs.”
Accordingly, he designed one tabloid cover after another, a series of variations on the greatest hits of the tabloid genre. Wednesday mornings, he would go to the newsstand around the corner to compare his screaming headlines with The Post’s. “Jesus Seen in New Haven” literally quoted tabloid style for a feature story about a rash of apparitions. “Rudy’s Dept. of Dirty Tricks” featured a Stephen Kroninger illustration with blue ink picking up The Voice’s invariable blue banner logo. Published during a bitter election campaign, “What You Don’t Know about Ferraro and the Mob” spoke for itself, as it was meant to do. “Before the story ran, we knew that it was going to get a lot of attention—that the cover would be shown on the local news,” Newman recalls. “So we designed it to be TV-ready.” Sure enough, Geraldine Ferraro’s rival featured the cover in her campaign ads. “Those were all quick hits, all about sales,” Newman says, proudly. “We’d do them in a day and move on to the next thing.”
In The Voice, unlike the tabs, the next thing as often as not was a long and abstruse piece about cultural theory or municipal politics. Newman’s challenge in those cases was to grab the reader’s attention while honoring a story that, on the face of it, might seem hard going. On the cover headlined “The Monster That’s Eating New York,” a photograph of Godzilla eating a subway train illustrated a story about the Lockheed Corporation’s lock on public contracts. For “Will Family Scandal Sink George Bush?,” Newman used a bizarre photograph of the president that the editor had held onto for years, awaiting the perfect opportunity.
As it happened, it was not at The Voice but at New York, three years later, that one of Newman’s tabloid-style covers caused a political flap. “Would the Real Bob Dole Please Stand Up?” ran during the 1996 presidential campaign, at a time when editor Kurt Andersen (now at The New Yorker) was trying to give the magazine a sharper edge. But Henry R. Kravis, head of New York publisher K-III Communications (now Primedia), was a key player in Dole’s presidential campaign, and he was mortified. Kravis had Andersen fired, blaming the editor’s failure to address a shift in demographics. Newman speaks with disappointment of this time. He and Andersen shared a love for bold graphics and a desire to provoke. But the magazine has long been split between covering the life of the city and providing service pieces to the haute bourgeoisie. Newman’s cover for “Design ’96” is the service piece concept taken to an extreme: no design, no graphics, no illustrations, no commentary, nothing but silver foil.
An article about the Pressman brothers split the difference. As the owners of Barneys, they are of interest to readers of service pieces, and the department store’s decline into bankruptcy and an attempted sale to a Japanese company was a quintessential New York story about the changing city. Newman stacked type of decreasing size, as in a tabloid body type layout, alongside a photograph in which the brothers seem to parody a couple of old-style neighborhood haberdashers. “I’ve always pushed for letting images stand alone, as big as possible, without putting type on them,” Newman says. “Too many art directors crop too tightly and put too much type on.”
After almost a year at Details, Newman might seem ready to move on. And he is moving on: to a new accent at the same magazine. He is making a slow turn from the “cool jazz” influence to that of hand-lettered movie posters from the 1960s, as seen in a recent “Mondo Hollywood” issue, designed by John Giordani.
“These old movie stills are great, if you crop them in an interesting way,” he says. “And they’re free—which is great for us. This isn’t Entertainment Weekly.” He sounds not so much like an art director with an eye on the budget as an old political protester putting one over on the powers that be. Which is how he likes to see himself, and his work, no matter what the magazine.
Paul Elie is an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.